Cognitive dissonance occurs when a long held assumption or existing belief is thrown into question by new or contradictory information, causing a person to reinterpret this evidence after it has been presented to justify a falsely held notion. The theory refers to the phenomenon of the mind's failure to assume its equilibrium after having to accept an unwelcome intrusion of this kind into its “comfortably held assumption zone.” It results in a willful refusal to acknowledge that a shift in perception has even occurred. When exposed to information inconsistent with his/her beliefs, such a person remains fiercely loyal to the original falsehood to prevent an increase in the magnitude of dissonance felt in the face of a humiliating confrontation with inconvenient facts.
The phenomenon is most often associated with the resulting psychological struggle of cult members trying to come to terms with the failure of some cataclysmic event to occur, as predicted by the group's charismatic leader. Less committed members are more likely to acknowledge that they had been “had” and move on from there, while more fervent believers deal with the potential loss of face by reinterpreting past events to accommodate a present psychological dilemma. If the end of the world fails to materialize on schedule, it is thanks to the “power of prayer,” or newly emerging interpretations of prophecy.
A similarly revealing example of this phenomenon is the insistence of some Bush apologists that Saddam Hussein really did have huge stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, which he planned to use against the US, or that the Iraqi leader was somehow behind the September 11th attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon. Despite a mountain of evidence contradicting such claims, a significant minority still cling to the original falsehood of Iraq's “imminent threat” rather than admit that they've been (neo)conned. Somehow it's better to be wrong -- woefully and spectacularly wrong, even, than to admit to a mistake. Truth becomes anathema to the individual undergoing this kind of “unreality check.” They react to it like a peanut allergy sufferer being force fed the contents of a freshly opened jar of “Skippy”.
Mainstream “liberals” are similarly thrown into psychic turmoil when their delusions are dashed up against the rocks in their heads. To this day, they blame John Kerry's stunningly predictable defeat entirely on rigged Diebold machines, conveniently forgetting that their pro-(ish) war, Christian-Lite candidate was little more than a feebly branded knock-off of Bush's imitation Marlboro Man. Dirty tricks and voting machine malfeasance aside, Democratic Party loyalists refuse to acknowledge their complicity in sealing Bush's second term. Rather they continue to cry into their unfairly traded coffee and plaster their SUVs with “Hillary '08” bumper stickers, defiantly hopeful that their doomed-to-fail tactics will yield a more favorable outcome the next time around.
Sufferers of this disorder will go to extraordinary lengths to rearrange reality so it doesn't contradict their original belief, often employing wildly exaggerated claims to justify their reasons for believing it in the first place. A hot-headed emotional stance becomes the weapon of choice against coldly incriminating truth; a tactic which could be best summed thusly: “If at first you don't succeed in convincing others of the superiority of your blindly held convictions, overwhelm them with a barrage of conveniently twisted facts (‘Saddam gassed his own people!’), causing naysayers to lose sight of their basic argument, as they attempt to put them into context (‘True, but who sold him the weapons?’). This gives you the chance to remain resolutely focused on your moral outrage (“Rape rooms,” “Mass Graves,” “What about the Kurds?”) as your critics struggle to refute each factoid individually. So when faced with the reality of an unarmed Saddam Hussein tens of thousands of deaths later, a firm and stubborn believer will embellish his/her discredited notions to make them appear more believable. “Saddam Hussein may not have acquired WMD because he was too busy torturing every man, woman and child in Iraq and digging mass graves.”
When damning evidence proves resistant to the “Swift Boat treatment,” these individuals will try to downplay its significance. Thus the Valerie Plame affair is dismissed as “Nadagate” and the Downing Street Memo is “much ado about a little piece of paper.” They cling to a discredited belief or notion like steerage rats scrambling for a foothold on a tilted prow, dimly aware that their frantic, squealing resistance is futile, but hoping against reason for vindication.
When such an outcome fails to materialize, these irate individuals seek to inflict punishment on those whom they believe are responsible for their disoriented mental state. Predictably, “Democrats”, “Leftists” and “The Terrorists” are blamed for every one of Dear Leader's failures: “Democrats” because they deliberate too long before rolling over and taking it up the ass, “leftists” because “they hate America” and “The Terrorists” because “they hate our freedoms,” or the most chilling of banalities, “The world changed after September 11th.” For the person experiencing this kind of psychic discomfiture, vapid and meaningless slogans are comfort food.
Nonetheless, cognitive dissonance is by definition, an uncomfortable psychological stance, and a political ideology that entails such dissonance is not easily sustainable. Sooner or later, the ego that is constantly rubbing up against the jagged edges of reality will question the psychic benefit to be realized by clinging to an indefensible belief. In order to maintain at least a semblance of equilibrium, the initial belief must not only be profoundly seductive, but its attractiveness must be constantly emphasized and embellished. Herein lies the key to G.W. Bush's political genius.
Indeed, the President has managed to transform an obsessive insistence on the rightness of one's own primitive convictions in the face of inconvenient and contradictory facts from a liability (that of delusional thinking) into a virtue, variously known as “resoluteness”, “moral clarity,” “faith” and “inner strength.” Within the framework of Bush-thought, the truth and virtue of one's convictions is proved by the extent to which those convictions defy empirical facts with the sort of exalted, sublime indifference that is characteristic of a prophet. (“It's not my job to nuance,”(sic) says the “Commanderin'Chimp”, unintentionally admitting that his throwback brain is stuck somewhere between the dinosaurs and his club-carrying, knuckle dragging ancestors who roamed Eden's lushly tended golf courses six thousand years ago.) America's mass outbreak of Cognitive Dissonance might very well mark the beginning of Mankind's de-evolutionary return to the sixty dollar a barrel primordial swamp.
When Bush repeats the proposition that America had no choice but to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein was a “very bad man” who was threatening the free world, or when Dick Cheney insists that the insurgency is in its “final throes,” they are not appealing to empirical reality to verify their statements; rather, they are offering statements that are self-evidently true by virtue of being said, the way they are said. Saddam was a “very bad man” who was threatening the free world because that's what very bad men do, and this is true because it is being pointed out by a very good man, a man of resolute conviction -- the Sheriff of Dodge or Carson City. The rightness of Bush's policies is confirmed not by friendly facts, nor is it refuted by inconvenient facts; rather, it is confirmed by the resoluteness with which Bush believes in and articulates their rightness, and this resoluteness is enhanced rather than damaged by merely empirical evidence of error or even dishonesty.
Thus is Bush able to exploit Americans' native idealism, their reluctance to believe that their leaders might be a gang of marauding Sociopathic criminals, like the Gambino crime family. American culture has always embraced a strain of narcissism, which expresses itself in our literature as naïve idealism (Whitman), or self-destructive obsession (Poe -- think “The Imp of the Perverse”), or as a hybrid of both in our culture's highest achievements (Moby Dick). The original beliefs described above (in Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Saddam's connections to al Qaeda, etc.) gain their power by being aligned with Americans' fundamental confidence in their supreme and exceptional virtue, exempt from history or global opinion.
We note in concluding that the cognitive dissonance we have described is perhaps symptomatic of a deeper disorder of the digital age, when knowledge -- one's relationship to the modern (skeptical) world -- is coded as an endless series of interchangeable 1s and 0s in the perfectly weightless ether of cyberspace. In that space, the distinction between relevant and irrelevant becomes itself irrelevant, such that the issues affecting Americans' lives (e.g., the budget and trade deficits, support for Israel, the number, location, cost and geopolitical consequences of our offshore military bases) are considered taboo in public discourse, and Brad Pitt's romantic meanderings are considered more newsworthy than invading another country based on lies. Honesty itself is irrelevant when nothing matters so little as truth and lies; Bush-speak populates a world in which one's words are valued less for their truth-value than for their capacity to engage in bullshit, the language of jokes and of pure power politics.
We close with a remark from Adorno's Minima Moralia that anticipated the cognitive dissonance that is characteristic postmodern Bush-speak:
“Things have come to pass where lying sounds like truth, truth like lying...The confounding of truth and lies, making it almost impossible to maintain a distinction, and a labor of Sisyphus to hold on to the simplest piece of knowledge...[marks] the conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power.”
Leilla Matsui is a freelance writer living in Tokyo, Japan, and mistress of the on-line journal, Rage Against the Washing Machine. E-mail her at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Stella La Chance is a disgruntled housewife living in suburban Ohio, who takes an amateurish interest in immature child psychology. She attends night school, and can be reached: email@example.com.
Other Articles by Leilla Matsui and Stella La Chance
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Other Deliverances of His Word by Leilla Matsui's alter-ego, Jolene Fystenbutt
Two Conservative Housewives Exchange
Views on Winning the Global War on Terror Through Sound Economic Policy
and Bible-Based Prophecy